In March 2012, Unicef launched the children’s rights and business principles – a set of 10 action points to help companies assess their impact on children. One year later, and to coincide with the World Child and Youth Forum, Unicef has released research findings into how UK companies now view children’s rights. And it isn’t too pretty.
Child rights not a top priority
Across a representative sample of sectors and company sizes (excluding companies with fewer than 250 employees), 39% say there are no issues around responsibilities to children relevant to their company. Quite a statement, considering all the companies surveyed will employ parents of children, or sell goods and services to markets with children in them.
According to the research, only one in 10 companies (11%) rate children’s issues as one of their top CSR priorities. “CSR work is fairly recent at Unicef”, explains Viktor Nylund, who now heads the CSR unit for Unicef in Geneva. “It’s only over the last couple of years really that we looked to take corporate engagement beyond the philanthropic approach.”
This is why the Children’s Rights and Business Principles were born, and Nylund believes their very existence has helped raise awareness among the corporate and CSR communities. Of the two-thirds (67%) of companies that think the next five years will see responsibilities to children becoming more important to UK companies, Nylund suggests for some: “even going through the survey process [they have] become more aware that children’s rights is an important focus as part of sustainability.”
Ida Hyllested, corporate alliances specialist at Unicef, believes “more companies are seeing the links in the workplace around a family-friendly work environment and the community”. But that, crucially, “there is a lack of awareness as to how they are actually impacting… the marketplace”.
Raising awareness of companies’ responsibilities
To help increase that understanding, Unicef is working with 40 partnership organisations in 22 countries to pilot an impact assessment tool based on the business principles, which it hopes to release in June.
One partner company is the Swiss travel operator Kuoni. Using the tool as part of a wider human rights assessment of its operations in Kenya, Matthias Leisinger, head of CSR at Kuoni, says: “The tool helped to guide our own impact assessment to show where we as a company have a responsibility, and where other stakeholders might come in … When you talk about children’s rights and human rights, the problem for companies often is how to be aware of what you can do and what is expected from you.
“For companies it can be difficult to find a starting point – when I talk to some of my colleagues working in other companies about child and human rights, they see this as an additional point… They talk about CSR and say ‘oh, now we have to tackle [children’s] rights as well?'”
This suggests a CSR-fatigue, with companies feeling overwhelmed by a burgeoning sustainability agenda. However Nyland argues this is also a potential strength for the children’s rights and business principles and the complementary tools Unicef is designing. “The feedback that we’ve had from several companies so far is that children’s rights can … act as an umbrella for all their sustainability work. Alfa Laval in Sweden for example told us that the Principles are holistic, allowing them to pull all the different pieces of the jigsaw together.”
Millicom, the Luxembourg telecommunications company whose Tigo brand operates across 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, had a similar experience with Unicef impact assessment tool. Milka Pietikainen, head of global corporate responsibility at Millicom, says: “The principles brought with them a much wider perspective on labour rights. Principle 3 for example talks about decent work for parents, so within the assessment we ended up doing a labour standards risk assessment at the same time. This is a good learning for other companies – you don’t need to see this as a separate exercise.”
Enrique Aznar, Millicoms’s head of corporate governance and compliance, adds that a focus on children’s rights “covers health and environment, it covers labour conditions for their parents … Definitely children’s rights link everything else [in regard to] the triple bottom line.”
Move away from compliance-only approach
The relative complacency among UK companies towards children’s rights may simply belie a lack of understanding. Children’s rights are often seen as only referring to child labour, an issue that most British companies may feel is covered by internal policies and employment law. However, especially in emerging markets, a compliance-only approach does not work. Pietikainen explains in some countries where Millicom operates, organisations can legally hire children aged 13 and above for ‘light tasks’. Less obvious and often wider reaching are the indirect impacts. “An eye-opener for me was the risks connected with electronic waste – in some of our markets there aren’t any processes available for the treatment of electronic waste, and very often children end up involved in taking apart equipment to retrieve valuable parts. What it emphasised for us was the importance of finding local and global vendors for the treatment of waste,” says Pietikainen.
Unicef’s Hyllested often refers to a company in Chile that produced glue. The glue was used by street children and because of a toxin in the glue, children were dying from sniffing the glue. When the company realised, even though of course this was not what their product was intended for, it changed the toxin ingredient in order to address that misuse. “That’s an example of where a company entered into a discussion, understood how their product was affecting children, and recognised that they actually had a role to play in changing this,” Hyllested says.
Aznar also argues that other sustainability issues suffer. “Children are the future. If companies don’t look at implementing policies in line with the business principles, then there is no guarantee we can ensure true sustainability. If we are not looking into [children’s rights] then we are not really working towards sustainability.”
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